Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
How to Confidently Align Experiential Learning Experiences with State Standards in Education
What are my thoughts on required state standards in education? Or national standards or any standards? I think I get this question as much as I do because of my experiential philosophy. How can a teacher like myself facilitate experiential learning experiences and teach to the state standards in education at the same time?
To answer the first question - my thoughts on required state standards in education - I dislike them. Period. This isn't going to be a long post about my distaste for state standards in education, but I'll lay out a general explanation to set the context for the rest of the post.
I don't think it is effective for one small group of people to decide for themselves what my students need and what they should learn.
Whoever wrote the standards may (or may not) have some experience in education, but they don't have experience with my student, Jane Doe. They don't know what she needs and what she should learn, and what Jane needs is not what Joe sitting next to her needs.
Standards are the opposite of personalized and they limit learning potential, in my opinion. Interest-led learning is engaging and leads to deep and meaningful learning experiences, so having to say to a student, "we're not learning about that because it's not a standard" is a problem for me.
Standards have the potential to suck the love and passion right out of learning if they are your entire focus. And if your students don't love learning then you're up against apathy, confusion, and lack of motivation and drive. On top of that, students are being trained to find learning to be a chore instead of a joy and carry that sentiment with them beyond school age.
With all of that said, whether I approve of the state standards in education or not, I still have to abide by them. I'm a public school teacher in MN, so that's just the way it is.
So the rest of this blog post will answer the second question; how can I give my students experiential learning experiences and still meet the standards that are required of me?
I know that a lot of you are in this position asking yourself this question. You may feel helpless, that you don't have a choice in the matter, but you still want to take a more experiential approach.
I'm going to give you examples of how I incorporate standards while still giving students choice and keeping the experience personalized and exciting. I am technically a high school life science and environmental science teacher, so the examples that I include in this post will revolve around a variety of high school science standards for Minnesota and NGSS standards (which overlap quite a bit).
Use the examples below as a framework, and apply the same idea to the standards that you are required to cover.
Aligning Experiential Learning Experiences with State Standards in Education
My students do a variety of experiential learning activities that are designed to be personalized, self-directed, real-world, etc; all of the characteristics that define classroom experiential learning.
So the rest of this post will offer examples of how to keep those experiential learning activities experiential in nature while slipping in some required standards or topics.
Note that every experiential learning experience mentioned below applies to any subject. Experiential learning integrates subjects by nature. I just use my state science standards as a guide. Apply the same ideas to your own situation.
Specific Ways to Add State Standards in Education to Experiential Learning Experiences:
The rest of this post offers examples of these methods in action.
1. Aligning Self-Directed Project-Based Learning to Standards
Ninety percent of the experiential learning experiences that my students have are self-directed project-based learning experiences.
Project-based learning is sustained inquiry. Components of project-based learning include authentic learning experiences such as collaborating with the community, connecting with community members for expertise and resources, developing innovative final products to demonstrate learning, and authentic presentations.
My students self-direct these PBL experiences meaning they choose their topics (or subtopics), write their own driving questions, decide how they will gather information and demonstrate knowledge, and who they will share their final products with.
So how can students choose the topic, process, and outcomes and meet the standards at the same time? My students design their projects around whatever standards they need to meet.
Example of Self-Directed Project-Based Learning Aligned to Content Standards:
If you are incorporating standards into self-directed project-based learning experiences, students will need to design their projects with those standards in mind. For example, the topic and research questions should be relevant to the standard(s).
For example, Minnesota high school students study interactions, energy, and dynamics of ecosystems. So I have my students meet all of these MN standards with ONE self-directed PBL experience titled "habitats".
Students choose a habitat to study and design their projects around that concept. They also write a driving questions and research questions to guide them through the experience. The questions that they write reflect the standards.
One of the HS MN ecology standards focuses on factors that have ecological and economic impacts on different-sized ecosystems. An example of an impact is changes in species numbers in an ecosystem. So one of the research questions that a student might add to their project plan is "what is the level of biodiversity in the habitat that I chose to study and what are some threats to that biodiversity?"
Check out my self-directed project-based learning starter kit, which includes all of the guiding templates that students would need to design and lead their own PBL experiences.
2. Aligning Design Thinking Maker Projects to Standards
Design thinking maker activities are really fun experiential learning experiences. It incorporates so many skill-building opportunities such as teamwork, cooperation, problem-solving, and creativity.
Students create a product that solves a problem and they does this by going through the phases of design thinking. They look at the problem from a variety of angles, empathize with those experiencing the problem, brainstorm solutions, create a prototype, test that prototype, and continue to revise until the product effectively solves the problem.
My students and my own children have created wildlife shelters, machines that efficiently clean small items from a space, budget-friendly dinner party menus, upcycled Halloween costumes and more, all of which started with an identified problem.
So how do you incorporate standards into this process? In a few ways. One way is that "engineering" is slipped into many standards. NGSS has engineering standards, for example. Then you can incorporate specific content standards by asking that students identify problems related to that content or those concepts.
Example of Design Thinking Maker Projects Aligned to Content Standards:
I am going to use the wildlife shelter mentioned above as an example. I have my students choose a local species and create a shelter for that species every year. I have had students make duck boxes, bat houses, bee hotels, and more.
This is a real-world, authentic, engaging, and skill-promoting approach to learning about group behavior, symbiotic relationships, differing populations, communities, and more, most of which are concepts written into the MN life-science standards.
In order for students to make shelters that effectively solve the problem and are safe for their chosen species, they need to deeply understand these concepts.
For a student to create a honeybee shelter, for example, that student would need to understand colony behavior, potential threats such as parasites, habitat requirements, and more. Those standards are written into the research/brainstorming part of this project.
Take a look at my design thinking maker project tool kit for templates that guide students through the design thinking process.
3. Aligning Problem-Based Learning with Standards
When I refer to problem-based learning activities here, I am talking about a specific problem-based learning activity that I have my own students do.
This PrBL activity entails that my students identify a real-world problem, examine the problem, look at the problem from a variety of angles, explore solutions, and develop a hypothetical comprehensive plan to solve the problem. I love this activity because it involves critical thinking, analysis of different views, cause and effect, and more.
So how can you incorporate standards into this problem-based learning framework? I personally believe that of all of the experiential learning experiences that I mention in this post, problem-based learning is the easiest to design around standards.
Example of Problem-Based Learning Activities Aligned to Content Standards:
I add a problem-based learning activity to almost every unit or theme that I cover, especially in my environmental science classes. I want my students to look at real-world issues from many perspectives, critically analyze information, and focus just as much on solutions as they do on the problem itself.
My students do a problem-based learning experience on invasive species. Each student or small group of students chooses an invasive species to study.
To effectively tackle the problem students need to understand the problem, and that requires researching some critical ecological concepts that allow invasive species to succeed as they do and why that is a problem for native communities. Many of the MN life science standards revolve around these concepts.
Students explore a variety of ways to remove or mitigate the problem and develop a plan that could in theory be applied to solve the problem altogether.
The process of this problem-based learning activity also aligns with some NGSS standards, including “Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.”
In other words, to align problem-based learning experiences with standards I assign a specific theme or problem for students to look at, a problem that connects with those standards. I also include a research guide with questions that directly follow the standards that I'm trying to cover. My invasive species problem-based learning resource includes that research guide.
Do design your own problem-based learning activities where you can include specific guiding research questions, check out my problem-based learning tool kit.
4. Aligning Self-Directed Experimental Inquiry to Standards
The "nature of science" is infused throughout the Minnesota's 9-12 science standards.
Scientific experimental inquiry is when students make observations about the world around them, ask questions, write testable questions, and design and conduct their own experiments around those questions. Students lead the experience. They do not conduct a recipe experiment that I assign to them.
The process of experiential experimental inquiry gets students thinking and working as scientists would, self-directing and -designing their own experiments to understand scientific phenomena. You can also assign a specific phenomena or concept that is highlighted in the standards that you are trying to cover.
Example of Experimental Inquiry Aligned to Content Standards:
As I said, I have a background in environmental science, so as part of a bigger water pollution unit, I have my students examine sources of water pollution through scientific experimental inquiry.
I do not have students look at data and empirical evidence (infused in the MN standards) by giving them a recipe step-by-step experiment to conduct. That would lack meaning and purpose.
Instead, I have students make observations about sources of water pollution in their communities, ask their own questions about those observations, and design and execute their own experiments about sources of water pollution.
That is experiential in that it is authentic and real-world, personalized to their interests, and student-directed. But they also tackle content-specific MN state standards including 9C.126.96.36.199 Analyze patterns in air or water quality data to...
So I align standards with experimental inquiry by offering a theme such as sources of water pollution but keep it experiential by having them ask their own testable questions and design their own experiments.
If you're looking for templates where students can design their own inquiry experiments, take a look at my experimental inquiry tool kit.
5. Aligning Community Action Projects to Standards
I created the concept of community action projects around the principles of project-based learning with an added element of direct action taken on the part of the students.
Students choose a community issue or problem around their interests or around a theme that I assign to them. They examine their chosen real-world community issue, research the problem, explore solutions, brainstorm ways that they themselves can take action, develop a plan of action, and take action.
This experience is highly authentic, real-world, collaborative, and community/place-based, so it does take some time, anywhere from 4-8 weeks depending on the nature of the project.
This might sound like a lot of time that you don't have to give, especially if you are required to align learning experiences with standards. It's a lot of time to commit to only knocking out a couple of benchmarks.
But that's the beauty of an experience like this. One project can cover so much ground. I could knock out an entire ecology unit with one community action project.
On top of that, I want to remind you (even though you might be pressured to think otherwise), that content cannot be all that we emphasize in learning experiences. Community action projects offer so many life and career skill-building opportunities. They promote the desire and motivation to learn. They teach students how to learn, preparing them for a lifetime of learning. Developing content knowledge is only a small piece of the experience.
So in short, I align community action projects with standards by giving students a real-world problem around a specific theme. The exploration piece of the experience knocks out many of those subject-specific content standards and then some.
For templates that walk students through the process of designing and executing these experiences, grab my community action project tool kit.
Example of Community Action Projects Aligned to Content Standards:
Let's look at invasive species again for this community action project example. As I said in my problem-based learning example, I have my students examine one invasive species of choice, examine the problem, explore, solutions, and develop a plan to solve the problem.
Once they have completed that experiential learning experience I have them do a community action project on that same invasive species. They look at some of the hypothetical solutions that they included in their plan and act on one of them.
For example, they might have discovered from their problem-based learning experience that lack of community education or awareness about the invasive species is part of the problem so that student might focus their community action project on organizing a community event to raise awareness about the invasive species.
This experience in itself could cover the entire NGSS HS section on ecosystems. The students are deeply involved in these concepts because they are experiencing them firsthand front and center. They work with community experts and collaborators that know these concepts inside and out.
Again, I align the ecosystems standards with this experience. I deliberately choose a topic that aligns with those standards (invasive species) and ask that students actively research those concepts over the course of the experience.
As you can see from the examples it doesn't have to be hard or complicated to tie experiential learning experiences to standards. Experiential learning also shouldn't feel too time-consuming to implement.
Experiential learning is deeper, so one experiential learning experience covers a lot more ground content/standard wise than would a worksheet or even a teacher-centered lab.
Each of those quick, non-experiential activities might cover only a benchmark or two and the learning is shallow. So even if you happened to knock out a standard, do the students even understand the content or care enough about what they learned to retain it or see the value in it? That is why experiential learning is key.
I developed an entire course around the science of climate change with nothing but experiential learning experiences. Students develop a deep understanding of this topic in a couple of months. The course covers a massive chunk of the NGSS high school standards.
Assessing the Understanding of the State Standards in Education
How do you assess experiential learning? How do you assess whether students have grasped the concepts outlined in the standards? I do this in a few ways.
1. Presentations and Evaluation Meetings -
My students demonstrate learning by presenting their outcomes or final products. Depending on the experience they might present to the class, present to the school, share their work at an exhibition night, or do an authentic presentation where they share their work with the public. I observe their understanding of the content that way.
After they have presented their projects I often do a one-on-one evaluation meeting where we go over the experience together. I do these evaluation meetings after every experiential learning experience. I do not do them after experimental inquiry, for example, but always do to wrap up self-directed project-based learning and community action projects.
2. Experiential Learning Experience Rubrics -
I assess ALL experiential learning experiences with a rubric. I have a rubric specifically designed for each of the experiential learning activities listed above. Each of those rubrics includes a "content" evaluation category, which can be applied to their understanding of the standards.
My more independent students create their own rubrics. They can be asked to include evaluation categories that reflect the standards.
3. Reflections -
My students wrap up every single experiential learning activity with a learning reflection. I often ask them to answer reflection questions that I write which align with the content standards covered in the experience. I do this to gauge their understanding.
4. Learning Portfolios -
My students keep experiential learning portfolios where they add rubric scores, photographic evidence of learning, reflections, goals met, and standards met for EVERY experiential learning experience. At the end of the year or session, they have a robust portfolio that showcases cumulative experiential learning experiences and outcomes.
Grab this portfolio for yourself for free! It is an editable Google Slides that can be modified to fit your needs and situation. It is currently titled for "project-based learning" but it can be used to showcase any experiential learning experience.
This may have felt like a lot or seems overwhelming, but I assure you, aligning experiential learning experiences with state standards in education isn't so bad.
Experiential learning is student-directed by nature, so students can develop experiences around those concepts. They just need your guidance. Some guiding tools and templates wouldn't hurt either such as the freebies already mentioned.
Consider some of my ready-made experiential learning activities that I have aligned to standards already.
I also encourage you to check out my experiential learning activity tool kits bundle, which includes the tool kits for all of the experiential learning activities mentioned in this post. You can use these tool kits to develop your experiential learning activities or have your students design their own experiential learning experiences that are aligned to the standards that you need to cover.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.